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spiritual glamour: my first guru heartbreak

On my first trip to India, my friends and I made two important visits. We went far north for a private audience with the Dalai Lama {you can read about my heart-altering experience here.} And we went far south to stay at the Ashram of the famous guru Sathya Sai Baba.

Sai Baba is a controversial swami. I have right-minded friends who have witnessed him work miracles – or magic tricks as many others suspect. He is said to work his powers to manifest rings and bird eggs and gemstones from his palm. And, I think, why not? Our human perspective of dimensionality is only emerging, but certainly some know how to pierce the veil. I believe that instant material manifestation is possible, so why not Sai Baba?

But in addition to being praised for his powers, Sai Baba has been accused of being a sexual predator and a conman. And yet, just like the week I sat in his temple, there are thousands upon thousands of people … from curious spectators like me, to life-long devotees, who travel far to sit at his feet. They stay for weeks, sometimes years. Huge sloping white temples, a free hospital built in his name (people journey from as far as New Jersey for open heart surgery at no cost,) a Sathya Sai Baba university. The place is impressively massive.

I wore frangipani flowers in my hair.

I got up at four am to stand in line and hear the chants. I’m embarrassed to say I even wore a bindi dot (which is kind of like going to Jamaica and getting corn row braids on holiday … it’s lame.) I chanted. I prayed. I meditated. But, I was just not feeling the love. It was confusing my expectations of bliss. Clearly, I was not going to be saved on my trip to India.

No eye contact is allowed within the ashram walls. Imagine a bustling village without anyone really looking at each other. Men and women are kept separate within the temple. There is a lineup of hundreds of men, and a separate line up of hundreds of women. The old Indian mamas who were in charge of steering the herds of attendees were gruff. One of them snapped at me for looking at a man…and I wasn’t even lookin’, I swear.

By day three in swami land I had a wicked craving for a pack of smokes and The Pogues.

The whole scene felt rather joyless to me. And arrogant. Westerners in their new tunics all proud to be pious for three weeks out of the year. Of course, there were sweet moments – mostly with children and street peddlers, and I met some wonderful souls who were traveling the world asking big questions. But on the whole, I’ve felt more zest for life at a diner in Oklahoma.

There is place for piety, celibacy has its merits, and austerity can be hugely growthful. I get it. I understand the spiritual development purpose that such restraints are meant to serve.

But if you’re so caught up in your dogma that you can’t feel sincerity when it pulls on your sari, that you can’t even laugh out loud, then what’s the point of devotion?

It was my first devotee bummer. My bindi dot had melted. We were in the exotic plains of India, with bowls of marigolds to scoop and sacred cows wandering free – thousands of us – supposedly gathered in the name of love and peace. But from my angle, many Baba worshipers were just as goo-goo-eyed and uptight as any God-fearing brimstone Baptist.

Too bad. I was really hoping for something more…magical.